Tag: HSA

Members of Congress Introduce Cato ‘Large HSAs’ Concept

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 29: (L-R) Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) speak at a press conference on Cuba at the U.S. Capitol January 29, 2015 in Washington, DC. Flake is introducing legislation with bipartisan support that would lift a longstanding ban on U.S. citizens traveling freely to Cuba. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA), and other members of Congress have introduced legislation based on the “Large HSAs” concept I first proposed here and developed herehereherehere, and here.

The “Health Savings Account Expansion Act” (H.R. 5324S. 2980) would expand the availability and benefits of tax-free health savings accounts (HSAs) in several ways. It would nearly triple existing HSA contribution limits from $3,400 for individuals and $6,750 for families to $9,000 and $18,000. It would allow tax-free HSA funds to purchase health insurance, over-the-counter medications, and direct primary care. It would eliminate the mandate that HSA holders purchase a government-designed high-deductible health plan. And it would repeal ObamaCare’s increase of the penalty on non-medical withdrawals. Americans for Tax Reform and FreedomWorks have endorsed the bill.

I’m sure I will have lots to say about Flake-Brat, but here are a few initial impressions.

  1. Flake-Brat would free workers from the government program we call employer-sponsored insurance—but only if that’s what workers want. The federal tax code currently tells the average worker with family coverage she can either surrender $13,000 of income to her employer and let her employer choose her health plan, or surrender a huge chunk of that money to the government by paying income and payroll taxes on it. The Flake-Brat bill would allow her to keep that money and either save it, use it to stay on her employer’s health plan, or use it to purchase better coverage somewhere else, all tax-free. The choice would belong to her, not to Congress or the IRS.
  2. Flake-Brat is a bigger tax cut than you’ve ever seen.  Large HSAs would be the largest-ever scaling back of the federal government’s role in health care. The Flake-Brat bill is effectively a $9 trillion tax cut. That’s how much money the current tax exclusion for employer-sponsored insurance will divert from workers to their employers over the next decade. Flake-Brat would return that money to the workers who earned it. Flake-Brat is thus an effective tax cut equal to all of the Reagan and Bush tax cuts combined. It is nine times the size of the tax cut associated with repealing ObamaCare.  Unlike health-insurance tax credits, Large HSAs involve no government spending and would not mandate that taxpayers purchase health insurance, as existing HSAs and health-insurance tax credits do. (The bill and its sponsors describe that requirement as a “mandate.”)
  3. Flake-Brat would make health care better, more affordable, and more secure. It would do so by dramatically reducing government’s influence over the health care sector. By shifting from employers to consumers nearly a quarter of the $3 trillion Americans spend annually on health care, Large HSAs would begin to make the health care sector and health policy respond to the needs of patients. Large HSAs are also less restrictive than existing HSA law or health-insurance tax credits. As a replacement for ObamaCare, Large HSAs would encourage innovative products like pre-existing conditions insurance that make coverage more affordable and secure.
  4. Flake-Brat shows Congress could create Large HSAs with or without repealing ObamaCare. Large HSAs are the most promising ObamaCare replacement plan to date, but Congress can create them before it repeals ObamaCare. The Flake-Brat bill would create Large HSAs even with ObamaCare still on the books. In fact, Flake-Brat would build support for repealing ObamaCare by exposing consumers to the full cost of its hidden taxes.
  5. Flake-Brat is a marker. The Flake-Brat bill defers consideration of a number of issues. All else equal, expanding tax breaks for HSA contributions would reduce federal revenues and increase federal deficits and debt. Like any proposal to level the playing field between employer-sponsored coverage and other coverage, the bill creates the potential for employer plans to unravel as (healthy) people choose better options. Were Congress to enact Flake-Brat with ObamaCare still on the books, there could be even more complicated interactions. The bill doesn’t totally level the playing field, either. Everyone would get an income-tax break, but only those with an employer who facilitates HSA contributions would get the payroll tax break. (Large HSAs can completely level the playing field with a simple tax credit that mimics that exclusion for such workers.) The authors don’t address these issues in the bill, or their supplemental materials. They will have to address them at some point. Fortunately, there are solutions. (For more on those solutions, see the “developed” links in the second paragraph.)

All in all, the Flake-Brat bill is a much-needed addition to the debate over the future of American health care.

On Health Care, Walker and Rubio Offer ObamaCare-Lite

In today’s Manchester Union-Leader, I explain the eerie resemblance that the health care plans advanced by presidential candidates Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) bear to ObamaCare:

The centerpiece of both “replace” plans is a refundable tax credit for health insurance. Yet such tax credits already exist, in Obamacare. Also like Obamacare, the Walker/Rubio tax credits would allow Washington to decide how much coverage you purchase, penalize you if you don’t buy that government-defined plan, and conceal massive redistribution of income under the rubric of tax cuts…

How would Walker and Rubio pay for their new spending? Would they keep Obamacare’s tax increases? Raise taxes elsewhere? Would they finance new health care spending by cutting existing health care programs? If so, chalk up yet another way their plans would resemble Obamacare.

I also provide an alternative for reformers who actually want better, more affordable, more secure health care.

Conservatives can offer a better “replace” plan that is politically feasible by expanding a bedrock conservative initiative: health savings accounts, or HSAs, which have already enabled 14.5 million Americans to save more than $28.4 billion for their medical expenses tax-free.

Expanding HSAs would give workers a $9 trillion effective tax cut, without cutting spending or increasing the deficit, and would drastically reduce government control over Americans’ health decisions. Most important, “large” HSAs would spur innovations that make health care better, cheaper, and more secure — particularly for the most vulnerable.

Conservatives need to get this right, lest they repeat the same mistake they made in 1993-94.

For decades, prominent conservatives advocated an individual mandate. The left then picked up the idea and gave us Obamacare. Before they once again fall into the same trap, conservatives should drop any support for the implicit mandate of health-insurance tax credits. Expanding HSAs is more compassionate and provides a direct route toward freedom and better health care.

For more on Large HSAs, see here, here, and here.

Opposition to ObamaCare Hits New High in Kaiser Family Foundation Poll

The following chart shows that ObamaCare’s unfavorables reached 50 percent in the latest Kaiser Family Foundation poll.  That’s higher than at any point since KFF started tracking ObamaCare’s unfavorables in January 2010.  The KFF poll also found that opposition is much more intense than support; 19 percent view the law very favorably, while 34 percent view the law very unfavorably.  Despite the availability of the these nuggets, KFF’S press release chose to deemphasize the surge: “Americans Remain Divided Over Health Reform With An Uptick In Public Opposition As GOP Ramped Up Repeal Campaign.”

Even more entertaining was this chart, which purports to show that Americans oppose defunding ObamaCare by nearly 2-to-1.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that 16 percent of the public opposes defunding ObamaCare because they want to see the law flat-out repealed.  A less-misleading pie chart would show that 33 percent approve of defunding, 16 percent say “don’t defund, just repeal” (total: 49 percent), and 46 percent disapprove of defunding ObamaCare.

Other findings include:

  • 76 percent of the public oppose the individual mandate (and 55 percent oppose it even after hearing arguments for and against);
  • 69 percent support cutting spending on ObamaCare’s coverage expansions;
  • 60 percent believe ObamaCare will increase the deficit, while only 11 percent believe it will reduce the deficit;
  • 52 percent support cutting Medicaid;
  • 51 percent oppose ObamaCare’s employer mandate; and
  • 51 percent oppose ObamaCare’s new taxes on over-the-counter medications for HSA, FSA, and HRA holders.

Despite these generally sensible views, 68 percent believe that Congress can balance the budget without cutting Medicare.

ObamaCare’s Price Controls Threaten HSAs

John Goodman is correct that ObamaCare’s individual mandate – and Kathleen Sebelius’s power to make the mandate more burdensome at whim – threaten the continued existence of health savings accounts (HSAs).  But ObamaCare’s price controls are no less a threat.

The new law requires insurers to charge enrollees of the same age the same average premium, regardless of health status.  That’s a price control, and it will cause premiums for healthy people to rise dramatically and thus lead to massive adverse selection.  Healthy people will gravitate to less-comprehensive insurance – in particular, HSA-compatible high-deductible plans – where the implicit tax is smaller.

As premiums for comprehensive plans spiral upward (ultimately causing comprehensive plans to disappear) and as ObamaCare proves more costly than projected, supporters will be desperate for new revenue.  They will call for the elimination of both HSAs and high-deductible health plans on the grounds that those products – not the price controls, mind you – are causing the market to unravel.

HSAs allow young and healthy consumers to avoid the raw deal that ObamaCare offers them. And that’s precisely why ObamaCare’s supporters will try to kill HSAs. We will end up repealing one or the other.

Obama’s HSA Gambit a Net Minus?

President Obama evidently thinks that if he promises not to kill health savings accounts (HSAs), opponents will swoon for his government takeover of health care.  If that doesn’t do the trick, he should make clear that his health plan would not eliminate other things too, like the Defense Department and puppies.

Of course, that hollow gesture didn’t win the president any Republican support.  But it may have cost him some Democratic support – or at least frayed the nerves of a few House Democrats.  According to CongressDaily:

Liberals, meanwhile, are fuming over an addition Obama made to his proposal to make the effort appear bipartisan and possibly switch the votes of moderate Democrats who opposed the House bill last year.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairman, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said Wednesday he is disturbed and bitter about an addition he said goes against Democratic principles.

“I’ve been leaning ‘no’ for a long time. That hasn’t changed,” Grijalva said about voting for the healthcare overhaul the Senate passed in December and a package of changes that would move through a separate bill through reconciliation.

Obama indicated he might be open to a provision that would encourage the use of health savings accounts, a tax-exempt savings account that typically is used in conjunction with a high-deductible plan. The provision would allow the exchanges to offer high-deductible plans.

“For some of us, the bitterness about HSAs in and the public option completely out, I don’t know how long that’s going to linger,” Grijalva said.

Which tends to confirm what HSA supporters have long feared: killing HSAs is the Left’s game plan.

Mr. President, Here Is Our Answer

President Obama continues to portray the debate over health care reform as a choice between his plan for a massive government-takeover of the US healthcare system and “doing nothing.”  Those who oppose his plan are said to be “obstructionist” or in favor of the status-quo.  Yesterday, the President again said, “I’ve got a question for all those folks [who oppose his plan]: What are you going to do? What’s your answer? What’s your solution?”

Well, I can’t speak for all his critics, but the Cato Institute has a long record of supporting health care reform based on free-markets and competition.  If the President wanted to know more he might have read my recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times or Michael Cannon’s piece in Investors Business Daily.  He could have read our book, Healthy Competition.  Or he might have just gone to healthcare.cato.org and read our plan:

  • Let individuals control their health care dollars, and free them to choose from a wide variety of health plans and providers.
  • Move away from a health care system dominated by employer-provided health insurance. Health insurance should be personal and portable, controlled by individuals themselves rather than government or an employer. Employment-based insurance hides much of the true cost of health care to consumers, thereby encouraging over-consumption. It also limits consumer choice, since employers get final say over what type of insurance a worker will receive. It means people who don’t receive insurance through work are put at a significant and costly disadvantage. And, of course, it means that if you lose your job, you are likely to end up uninsured as well.
  • Changing from employer to individual insurance requires changing the tax treatment of health insurance. The current system excludes the value of employer-provided insurance from a worker’s taxable income. However, a worker purchasing health insurance on their own must do so with after-tax dollars. This provides a significant tilt towards employer-provided insurance, which should be reversed. Workers should receive a standard deduction, a tax credit, or, better still, large Health Savings Accounts (HSAs)  for the purchase of health insurance, regardless of whether they receive it through their job or purchase it on their own.
  • We need to increase competition among both insurers and health providers. People should be allowed to purchase health insurance across state lines. One study estimated that that adjustment alone could cover 17 million uninsured Americans without costing taxpayers a dime.
  • We also need to rethink medical licensing laws to encourage greater competition among providers. Nurse practitioners, physician assistants, midwives, and other non-physician practitioners should have far greater ability to treat patients. Doctors and other health professionals should be able to take their licenses from state to state.   We should also be encouraging innovations in delivery such as medical clinics in retail outlets.
  • Congress should give Medicare enrollees a voucher, let them choose any health plan on the market, and let them keep the savings if they choose an economical plan. Medicare could even give larger vouchers to the poor and sick to ensure they could afford coverage.
  • The expansion of “health status insurance” would protect many of those with preexisting conditions. States may also wish to experiment with high risk pools to ensure coverage for those with high cost medical conditions.

Mr. President, the ball is back in your court.

Nader Supports Health Savings Accounts?

In a recent article Ralph Nader attacks several critics of Obama’s health care reform proposal, including Cato:

Now enters the well-insured libertarian Cato Institute with full-page ads in the Washington Post and The New York Times charging Obama with pursuing government-run health care. A picture of Uncle Sam pointing under the headline “Your New Doctor.” Nonsense. The well-insured people at Cato should know better than to declare that this “government takeover” would “reduce health care quality.”

I agree that Cato employees are “well-insured” – a description so appropriate that Nader used it twice in a single paragraph. At Cato we have Health Savings Accounts, which are probably the closest thing to free market health insurance allowed by law.

It’s nice to see Nader, a proponent of socialized medicine, praise HSAs. But it’s unfortunate that his preferred options for health care would abolish HSAs entirely.